Turner Prize Exhibition 2017. Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.

Last House. Hurvin Anderson. 2013

I enjoyed the Turner Prize exibition at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull so much more than I expected to. There was only one artist- Andrea Buttner- whose work didn’t appeal to me at all, too strident and didactic, and one- Hurvin Anderson- whose work I enjoyed for its beauty, but somehow it didn’t make me stop and wonder. I have a feeling it may not last long in my memory. That leaves two artists who really did make me think. Either of them would have been worth the journey on their own.

A still from Rosalind Nashashibi’s film Electrical Gaza. 2015.

A still from Rosalind Nashashibi’s film Electrical Gaza. 2015.

Rosalind Nashashibi’s film piece Electrical Gaza from 2015 is an interesting watch which draws you in slowly as you realise what she is doing and recognise inferences, contradictions and connections. I watched it through twice and I think I needed to. It is a clever mix of animation and live film footage which gives a wonderful pay off at the end when you are made to do a double take, squinting to check whether something you are shown is real or not. There is teeming life, strength, suffering and love here as we are shown the offcuts of everyday life made into a kind of poetry. It is as close as you can get to being there. The camera shows you the kind of inconsequential, random images that your eye would follow while you explore, alongside a wider portrait of a crowded community struggling to survive.

A Fashionable Marriage. Lubaina Himid. (1986) As installed at the Ferens Art Gallery Hull for the Turner Prize exhibition.

Finally we come to my winner. I am writing this on the morning of the day that the actual winner will be announced so I am getting in first with my own personal award. Lubaina Himid, born in Tanzania in 1954, makes me glad that there is now no age limit on those who are eligible for the Turner Prize. Her work is full of colour, playfulness and humour shot through with serious purpose and a real cutting edge. It is both a rebuke to all those who neglected to recognise black creativity and culture- and even persecuted it- and a celebration of the strength and talent that allowed that culture to thrive anyway. Her large piece A Fashionable Marriage (1986) is based on William Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode. Hogarth’s vision is transposed to the materialistic, hedonistic culture of the 1980s- a perfect fit- and it is all there. Hogarth’s servant becomes a black woman artist, shifting their role from servant to freedom and creativity and the countess becomes Margaret Thatcher. It is beautifully installed and lit like a showstopper. Erudite, accessible and witty.

Swallow Hard. The Lancaster Dinner Service is a much more recent work from 2015. It is made up of the kind of china that was in houses across Britain a few generations ago- all very familiar to me- a random assortment found and collected by Lubaina Himid and redecorated with poignancy and wit to remind us of the unseen and undervalued black presence and culture which was an unspoken part of that world. It is quite haunting and tells the story of slavery, without using horror tactics or pointing fingers. We get the point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is also a selection of framed Guardian front pages which have been over-painted to provide the same kind of witty, pointed comment on the content of the articles. It’s a nice idea and adds an extra layer to the story which has been missing. I really hope that Lubaina Himid wins but if she doesn’t a lot of northerners will have had their eyes and their minds opened so that is a prize in itself.

 

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Doors.

A door bears the lingering, silent shadow
of each person who has passed through it.
A presence worn too deep to gloss away,
bled into the grain of the wood.

A door still feels the hand of each person
who ran a finger along its edge,
turned a knob or slipped through an opening
into the freedom of an empty space.

A door remembers slams, shouts and tears.
It holds a memory of each person who walked through it
looking back with reluctance, hiding fears.
A door bears scars.

A door remembers hushed spaces, secret meetings,
quiet giggles, passion and privacy.
It says nothing and sees everything.
A closed door is blind.

A door remembers running children filled with laughter,
times which never thought to end.
The happiness of a frozen moment, the scent of forgiveness,
the voice of a friend.

An open door holds a space where many wishes cross.
It is a place of challenges, of loss and gain,
a chronicle of coming and goings, sharp regrets,
and promises to people who are never seen again.

Shadows on the Door. Jiro Takamatsu. 1968. Installed at the Henry Moore Institute. Leeds.

Shadows on the Door. Jiro Takamatsu. 1968. Installed at the Henry Moore Institute. Leeds.

 

 

Giacometti. Tate Modern. 16-07-17

Man Pointing 1947 Bronze 178 x 95 x 52 cm Tate, Purchased 1949 © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

“We succeed only to the extent that we fail.”

Giacometti was born in 1901 and during a hard working and disciplined life he became one of the great sculptors of the twentieth century. The major exhibition of his work at Tate Modern is the first for twenty years and we have waited far too long for it. It is a fine show. The sculptures that Giacometti has left us seem to live on for him, honouring his memory. Each one bears the marks his fingers made on their surface as he worked on them obsessionally, his presence still clings to the surface giving it life. He loved to mould clay or plaster with his hands, although his work was cast in bronze, and the austere, passionate personality of the man who worked in the same frugal studio for many years stares calmly out of everything that he made. They do not challenge us, they just are. They have dignity, grace, composure, movement and above all humanity. They are timeless.

Very Small Figurine c.1937- 1939 Plaster, traces of colour 4.5 x 3 x 3.8 cm Collection Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Pari s © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

Even the tiniest most unassuming little figure lives, although barely formed. The “very small figurine” made in 1937/39 is a tiny miracle. It is barely there at all……. yet it lives. I stood alongside a teenage boy and we both marvelled at it. The man walking across a square, a bronze figure from 1949, has determination and purpose- he is crossing that square to get somewhere- it is as though we can read his mind. The bronze dog from 1957 has great personality. He is going along at a medium lope, on his own, sniffing for stuff but he has not found anything yet. He is comfortable. He knows where he is and where he is going. It is also a saluki, one of the worlds oldest dog breeds so it can stand in for all dogs, everywhere, alive and dead, who have spent their lives doing just that. The falling man, a bronze made in 1950, has been caught in mid tumble, just before he loses balance. A moment has been freeze framed. In the final room three giant figures face us as we walk in, two women and a man. It is humbling to meet them- and yes it does feel like a meeting- and see Giacometti working on a grand scale. A grand scale which has lost none of the humanity and humility which runs through all his work.

Diego Seated 1948 Oil paint on canvas 80.5 x 65 cm Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, Norwich © Alberto Giacometti Estate, ACS/DACS, 2017

The paintings which mostly come from his early years, are dark and shadowy, intensely worked and full of vibrating life. I didn’t like them so much as the sculpture although there is one of Jean Genet which appealed to me very much.

Pierre Matisse Giacometti working on Four Figurines on a Stand at the Tate Gallery, 1965 © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2017

Part way through the exhibition there is a wonderful film of Giacometti at work in his studio. He is concentrating hard, intensely tactile, fingers moulding the clay, passionate, dignified, strong and unchanging, but always humble. He used the same few subjects, a few people who were close to him, over and over again and he tells his interviewer that he could try to paint someone for a thousand years and he would end up saying “it’s still all wrong but I am getting a little nearer”. Rather than making a likeness of an individual he was paring life, and in particular humanity, down to its essence and that is a long job- not one for the faint hearted. Never have I seen work that so reflects the personality of the man who made it. I think I would have liked him very much.

The Dark Self. Susan Aldworth at York St Mary’s.

Sleep is a great subject for Art. Mysterious, unknowable but vital to our health and well being sleep is an experience which we all share. It is the stuff of fairy tales and fantasy. We ask each other about it, talk about it, worry about it and attempt to find meaning in our dreams. It is a central part of our lives which we have no control over, our secret self, or as Susan Aldworth calls it in in her exhibition at York St Mary’s this summer, The Dark Self.

St Mary’s is an atmospheric space, a decommissioned church, which responds to beauty and mystery and this exhibition fills the space with both. The soundscape provided by composer Barney Quinton for the film installation, Dormez Vouz, unifies the whole space into a single experience as you walk around and makes it into a place for dreams. The film is both haunting and surreal- much like sleep itself- and you find yourself pulled into a slower, meditative way of being as you look at it, taken down into different world.

Susan Aldworth’s monoprints are both gentle and beautiful and the pillowcases, embroidered by 414 individual embroiderers from all over the country which hang in the central space and form the work 1001 Nights have dignity and presence. They are old pillowcases, with a history, used and slept on, and each person has made a kind of testimony as they sewed. They are all different, all unique to the person who made them and together they make a statement about our common experience and how we see it. It’s a fascinating piece which is both a piece of community Art and a work particular to the artist whose vision brings them together and allows them to speak with one voice.

I think the piece I loved most was the sculpture Evidence of Sleep III, five white porcelain pillowcases which rested calmly in a sunlit corner under a mullioned window. They were not quite what they seemed, hard porcelain masquerading as softness and comfort, and that deception and sense of mystery seemed exactly right.

This exhibition is a beautiful breathing space in the centre of the city for the whole summer while is is thronged with visitors and I shall make sure that I get back to it whenever I can.

Tracey Emin and William Blake in focus. Tate Liverpool. 10-03-17.

My Bed, Tracey Emin 1998, and Nebuchadnezzer, William Blake 1795-c1805

Tracey Emin and William Blake are an interesting pairing for an exhibition. Their work shares a keen sense of draughtmanship and the use of a strong dramatic line- Tracey Emin can draw quite beautifully, something which people who have not seen much of her work don’t always realise, and for Blake his ability as a draughtsman was at the core of his skill as a master printmaker. More than anything though it is the deeply personal, dramatic nature of their work that links them for me. Everything that Emin makes or draws is searingly honest and direct, straight from the heart, and when you look at Blake’s work you can see his demons being exorcised and driven straight onto the page. Blake had little recognition in his own lifetime, he was often thought of as mad, thanks to his headstong temperament and unconventional behaviour. He was a true visionary who went his own way and produced work that proved to be both ground breaking and influential. A true original. Tracey Emin has done the same in her career to date, attracting a lot of praise along with some criticism, particularly for work like My Bed, which she made in 1998.

Nebuchadnezzer, who lived from c.605-c.562 was the second king of the Babylonian empire, a powerful, warlike all conquering figure who enlarged the empire which he inherited from his father and embarked on great civic projects, temples, processional roads and bridges. Blake has chosen to show him in not in his pomp but in his later years, when he became a vulnerable elderly man, irrational and suspicious of even his family. This led to the break down of his empire in the years after his death. It is a powerful image in which we can still see the power and dignity of a once great ruler, reduced to an almost animal like state as he crawls along the ground, naked and unkempt. His hair is long and wild, dragging along the wet ground and his nails are uncut, making his hands and feet look like great clawed paws. We can still see the strength of his muscles and the bulging blood vessels but this strength is now achieving nothing. He stares out, wide eyed, unsure of where he is or what he is doing. It is an image of desperation, a cry for help.

Tracey Emin’s My Bed is also a cry for help from the year 1998, almost twenty years ago now. It records the moment when she looked at the wreckage of her bed, in effect the wreckage of her life, and realised I can make Art out of this. I can survive. I can grow. It records a turning point in her life. We are so used to seeing this work now that the bravery and originality of removing the object wholesale and placing it in a gallery, exactly as it was, as a record of the squalor and pain of that moment, is hard to appreciate. It is an object so powerful that even people who have little interest in Art will often have something to say about it. There are strong opinions and controversy, perhaps because there is no visible skill on show. “We could all do that”. Well perhaps we could……….. but we didn’t, did we? The power of that moment when Tracey Emin DID do that still resonates. Unless we are very lucky we have all had those desperate moments when life reached a turning point for us and this bed represents those moments. It was rock bottom for Emin. The only way was up. Her creativity would save her- just as it did William Blake. So long as they could continue to produce Art they could both survive.

For You. An installation by Tracey Emin. Liverpool Cathedral. 11-03-17


The thing which I find most impressive about our British cathedrals is, strangely enough, not the grandeur, the wonderful stained glass, or the majestic pillared naves inside them, it is the way that they are able to grow and change with the times. They are open, inclusive spaces which have stubbornly resisted the temptation to fossilise and this is why their congregations are growing while parish churches mostly decline. They understand that people today are not joiners. We like to find our own way and come to our own conclusions and each of us has a different starting point. There are no easy right answers. Those who are not steeped in religious culture- and that is many of us- need to be given a chance to have time out and think. A cathedral gives those who walk through the doors an opportunity to do that. Of course there are services and if you want to learn about Christianity you can do that, but you can also learn about yourself. You can sit in silence, take in the beauty and the quietness around you and work out for yourself what you think, rather than being told. In medieval times a criminal could seek sanctuary in them, and know that they were safe until the coroner arrived to bring official justice and we can still take sanctuary from our own lives in a different way. They provide a breathing space.

It is a brave thing for a cathedral to commission a modern Art work and place it centre stage in a traditional setting and it is also a brave thing for an artist to attempt. Tracy Emin’s installation under Liverpool Anglican cathedral’s west window- a huge area of stained glass with four windows covering 150 square metres by Carl Johannes Edwards was first put in place as a temporary installation in 2008 as part of the celebrations for Liverpool’s European city of culture year. It is a single sentence in pink neon, in her own handwriting and it reads “I felt you and I knew you loved me.“ It is a deliberately ambiguous statement- one with great power- which allows us to bring our own needs, experiences and concerns to it and it accepts everybody. We have all given and received love, throughout our lives, in many different forms and from many different sources. We may not be able to put its meaning into words, which is why so many people keep trying, but we know what it is when we feel it.

The installation is visible from almost everywhere in the cathedral, either wholly or in part. It keeps reappearing as you walk around the space and becomes almost like a mantra, reminding us gently of the most important thing about faith and the most important and noble thing about human beings- our capacity for love.

When it was installed Tracy Emin said that she wanted to “make something for Liverpool cathedral about love and the sharing of love” and she has succeeded quite beautifully. Everything in Liverpool Anglican cathedral was placed there to express love of God and her work opens up this truth so that all people, of any faith and none, can think about what is the best part of us all. It’s title, For You, is a very personal one and it reminds us that love is a gift, rather than a decision or an obligation.

The architect Giles Gilbert Scott devoted most of his adult life, from the age of 24 to his death at the age of 62, to building Liverpool Anglican cathedral from soft local sandstone. The foundation stone was laid in 1904 and he died without seeing it completed but he was able to put the last tower finial in place. The work was finally completed in 1978 and only the west end, where the Benedicite window and the installation is set, differs from his original plan. I’m sure that Tracy Emin’s work would surprise him but I hope he would be pleased that his great project continues to inspire and grow and that it can still mean something in a much changed and much more secular world.

All Creatures- curated by Mark Hearld. Scarborough Art Gallery.

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All Creatures, the summer 2016 exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery is both fascinating and unsettling. There is something quite eerie about seeing a large number of stuffed animals and birds of many different kinds, still and silent, in close proximity in a way that they never would be in life. So alive and yet so very dead. Bright eyes that see nothing, creatures set in lifelike poses that will never change. Each one of them has achieved a kind of immortality. This is just a tiny selection of the astonishingly diverse life on Earth, seen through death, beauty tinged with sadness. I particularly liked the goose hiding under a display cabinet and the gannet in still flight.

The Victorians loved taxidermy and sometimes took it to extreme lengths in a way that now seems strange to us. This exhibition helped me remember why. Bringing things back to “life” was part of their fascination with death. It was also a way to get to see animals closely when there was little opportunity to see images of them in the wild. As such it was also a tool for study and this was the motivation behind the collection which Mark Hearld has chosen from.

Mark Hearld’s own work is anything but eerie. It is joyous and life affirming. It was good to see some examples full size after seeing and sending so many small cards and to be able to take in the texture of the collages. They were much bigger than I had expected them to be and they had great presence and personality, able to compete easily with the collection of real creatures around them. The gaze of the seagull- one which I see from real birds every day- was perfectly captured and I would have loved to take home the arctic hare. The huge monchrome lino print of birds in a tree celebrated bird life in a way that the taxidermy never quite managed. I wished that more of Mark’s own work had been included and it would have been good to see them intermingled with the collection in a more direct way.

An atmospheric and thought provoking exhibition. I shall be going back.

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